A siren’s song is one of deceptive seduction whispering exactly what one wants to hear, but stories involving sirens never work out in the hearers favor. Instead, the hearer goes down paths that lead them into more confusion or even their own demise. The siren might say to a stuck business owner, “keep doing what you’re doing and just hire a COO, they can fill the gap.” Or maybe the siren would whisper, “you just need more sales, so hire a marketing person.” The siren’s ultimate message, “you know what to do, you’ve just got to work harder like you’ve always done when things get tough.”
What’s really going on? While an intriguing metaphor, for successful owners the mythical sirens of Odysseus are no more than their own mental models that served them well as they have scaled through start up and growth challenges of the past. Like a bucket of cold water in the face, we must admit that Einstein is right, what got you here won’t get you there. Increased scale and complexity result from prior success – that is a good thing. But, when the thinking that got owners to their current level of success proves to be insufficient to address the significant challenges they are now facing they have to take their mental models to new levels. And that is not an easy task!
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. (Albert Einstein).
Pressing in to discover what is going on below the surface for a stuck business owner usually reveals the presence of one or more common thinking errors (aka: magical thinking) in the owner’s mental models. Each of these mental models leads to a predictable pitfall, but owners get the upper hand by identifying the mental model at play. Successful owners gain control by squelching the siren and scaling up their level of thinking to bust out the sides on their box of current limitations to achieve their goals.
Here are 6 of the most common thinking errors we hear from successful owners who get stuck and what to do when it happens:
- I can work harder: Success leads to more success that leads to more success that leads to inadvertent side effects that eventually slow down the process. Mental Model: If I do more of what has worked in the past I should get better results. I just have to work harder. Correction: Work smarter. Don’t try and force growth, instead identify and remove the barriers to growth. Recognize that your symptoms (slumping sales, high staff turn over, shrinking profit, etc.) are not the real issue. Engage in root cause and system analysis to find the levers for change.
- I need to apply more control: Success leads to more staff that leads to processes, policies, and systems that initially work. Then exceptions and work arounds creep in. Mental Model: All control is good control even when it is reactive. Correction: Avoid the control illusion, there are critical differences. Proactive control takes into account how the owner’s wiring shapes the system and moves from creating a comfortable system to an effective, scalable system. It shifts the focus from one of quick fixes with unwanted side effects to one of fundamental change.
- I just need to solve the immediate problem: Busy owners get fixated on timely events (the next big client, a sales deadline, a new initiative) at the expense of building for the future. Mental Model: I only have so much capacity and I need to focus on what is important today. Correction: Serious threats usually unfold incrementally over time and are not a single incident. Taking the long view and applying resources to build the future instead of letting it happen increases your competitive advantage.
- I trust my people to grow with the business: the group of people responsible for advising the owner/CEO fails to learn and grow together leaving the business vulnerable. Mental Model: I have a team of people I trust and believe in who allow me to do what I do best, steer the ship. I don’t know if I can trust anyone else and if I add an unknown person I might have to manage differently. Correction: Acknowledge that management teams are part of the culture that created by the owner. They are often built to make the owner comfortable and that translates as “trust” and the trade off often scalability. Owner’s have to make the mental shift from “trust” being the highest priority to “sustainable scale” being the highest priority even though it requires managing differently.
- I have proven my approach works: the lessons of the past have taught me what I need to be effective in the future. Mental Model: I’ve paid a high price, fought hard for my success, and I am successful today. As a result I expect to be successful tomorrow. Correction: Recognize that experience is based on hindsight and post mortems. While experience is a valuable teacher, as on organization scales it requires thinking forward to remove costly barriers before they get built. Thinking forward means proactively and intentionally leading yourself differently in preparation for the increased complexity required to lead others differently.
- I just need the right person: I have reached a point where I can’t do it all myself and I just need a COO I can trust so I can focus on more important matters. Mental Model: The solution to the organizational stress we are experiencing is to simply hire people to fill a role(s). Correction: Staff are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to business growth. Equal attention must be paid to systems and processes, training, strategic focus, culture, and financial management. If not, the “right person” often creates only temporary relief before the systemic challenges re-assert themselves and the stress level returns, but with far greater complexity.
Here are some resources that are helpful for understanding the complex seas and uncharted waters successful owners must navigate to continue to grow:
- Peter Senge: “The 5th Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization”
- Quick intro to Systems Thinking (video)
- Robert Quinn: “Deep Change: discovering the leader within”
- Kim S. Cameron & Robert Quinn: “Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture”
- Competing Values Framework (video)
- Tom Peters and Robert Waterman: “In Search of Excellence: lessons from America’s best-run companies.”
- Marshall Goldsmith: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” (video)
Or you can set up a 15-minute no obligation consultation with our partner, Allie Taylor, to explore your unique situation and discover what it will take to silence your sirens and blow out the sides on your box of limitations.